It is common for politicians to use sport to promote themselves but what set Nelson Mandela apart was that he used sport to bridge deep-seated historical, divides.
Mandela, like no other modern political figure, understood that the language of sport can bring people together even those who have been kept apart for centuries on the basis of race.
This was most brilliantly illustrated in 1995 when South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup. From the beginning of the tournament Mandela, then South African President, made it his mission to get close to the mainly white players. So much so that he had the mobile number of Francois Pienaar, the South Africa captain. It became a bit of a joke in the Springboks team that Pienaar would every now and again break off from training to talk to Mandela.
Pienaar, like all his white teammates, had grown up in apartheid but such was the bond that developed with Mandela that he and his fellow white South Africans called him Madiba, father, the name black people used to refer to Mandela.
Mandela’s use of sport as a bridge was crowned when South Africa defeated the All Blacks to win the World Cup. Mandela wearing a Springbok jersey joined Pienaar in the celebrations. Under apartheid the springbok emblem was reserved for white people. Black people had always hated the emblem but Mandela in a special concession had allowed the rugby authorities to retain it. Now by wearing a jersey with that emblem he was showing that for all the wrongs the apartheid regime had done he could forgive and forget.
The result was that day the largely white crowd lustily sang “Nelson, Nelson”. For a sporting crowd in its moment of greatest triumph to shout the name of a politician is remarkable. What made it astonishing was even five years before that not only was Mandela in prison but South African newspapers could not even publish his picture. Many white South Africans did not even know what he looked like.
I had an early glimpse of Mandela’s understanding of the power of sport, the day after a unified cricket body, representing all the races of the country, was created. It was June 30, 1991 when I, along with some other journalists, was taken to meet Mandela at his home in Soweto. Mandela started by telling us the story of watching Australia play a Test match in Durban in 1950. “Yes, we watched it from the segregated stands and, of course, we cheered the Australians. The South Africans had made a big score. We were cheering [Neil] Harvey who was playing very well for the Australians but we were both nervous and excited. As he took Australia to the South African score we were very scared. What if he gets bowled out? Then Harvey came to our segregated stand and spoke to us. But I didn’t speak to him. They would have kicked us out if we had approached him.”
However, Mandela was not bitter. In fact, he said he wanted the world sports authorities to readmit South African governing bodies that had integrated. “Sport is sport and quite different from politics,” he said. “If sportsmen of this country take steps to remove the colour bar then we must take that into account.”
The result was that long before Mandela, and the other non-whites, got the vote, South Africa was back in international sport. And by allowing that, Mandela convinced white people that giving up power would not mean the end of their way of life. This use of sport played a major part in South Africa making a transition to democracy without experiencing the violence many had predicted.
I doubt if any other modern politician could have pulled off such an amazing feat with the skill and grace Mandela did. It speaks volumes for the power of sport and Mandela’s understanding of it.